The artistic focus of French film director Robert Bresson was to introduce ascetic revisions to the tenets of cinematographic style. Bresson found that the precepts of acting itself were questionable as a driving force in a narrative work, and that the overstudied efforts of actors to recreate ‘naturalness’ only served to distance the work from reality. He opted to consider the subjects of his films not as actors, but as models, who did not communicate through expressive performance but opaque gestures that the audience could internalize. To Bresson, the artifice inherent in acting ineluctably simplified the depth of the human subject, compromising the essence of the filmic art that he sought to capture. His minimalist style, and the artistic vision that underlies it, has been vastly influential in the cinematic tradition of recreating reality through the interplay of images.
Recently, the reintegration of Bressonian cinematography into novel narrative forms has been capably conducted by Canadian filmmaker Kazik Radwanski, who allows the mechanical human action of his subjects to elucidate discreet social realities. Two of Radwanski’s short films, Scaffold (2017) and Cutaway (2014), strip all traces of performativity from the daily lives of laborers by visually prioritizing their hands, the very source of the bodily action, and never offering a chance to see their faces. The centrality of the hands offers clarity in the operations of their work, and the abstraction of that work from the personhood of the worker carries both a stylistic and thematic function.
Cutaway opens with a brief window into the life of a day laborer told through the close details of the objects he comes to contact with. The fluid efficiency of his hands while working suggests extensive experience in these same repetitive, manual tasks, itself speaking to a stagnant and vapid lifestyle. There is a similar familiarity as he takes his pay to a bar for drinks and impulsive liaisons, further sketching out the cyclic patterns of his behavior. However, the routine motions are interrupted by a development that offers entrance to a totally new system of acting and being: the pregnancy of his significant other. We now see the trembling hands occupied with objects they have no experience with: the computer screen of an ultrasound machine, the hand of the mother of his child, a baby toy. The birth of his child provides an offramp from the patterns that dominate his life, andwhen the pregnancy ends in miscarriage the emotional devastation is all the more resonant. The return to the same menial physical labor is just as futile as it was before, but now carries an inflection of nihilistic resignation in the face of seeming inescapability. By omitting the faces of the characters, Radwanski allows the audience to internalize the emotions uninhibited by the distortion of contrived emotional expression.
Scaffold, though constructed through similar formal techniques, conducts a study on the social standing of laborers in relation to the people whose homes they work on. The movements and actions of the hands and bodies provide a similar visual context to Cutaway, as two recent immigrants work in a Canadian suburb—though unfamiliar and partially unwelcome in the environment they work in, the same cunning economy in their habits evidences a history with this caliber of work. In the plush and well-to-do neighborhood they find themselves in, the ‘facelessness’ resultant of the camera positioning reads as a visual indicator of how these less affluent, foreign laborers are seen by the residents: without a singular identity, only operators of their work. Furthermore, their positioning on top of the scaffolding offers an espial into the semi-private lives of the surrounding houses, literalizing their social position as outsiders voyeuristically peering into a world that they are in no way a part of. The confidence in their interaction with the objects of the worksite is contrasted with their clumsiness with the domestic paraphernalia, as they struggle to grip a fragile porcelain cup of coffee offered by the homeowner and can’t help but knock into a potted plant in the daintily-arranged bathroom. The counterbalancing of proficiency in labor and unfamiliarity in the bourgeoise home betrays an unspoken social code that both parties try to downplay but inevitably adhere to.
In both of these films, the interaction of persons and objects on screen strikes as a raw reproduction, rather than creation, of human stories. Bresson, and later Radwanski, are able to communicate in the visible parlance of bodies and objects to attain their cinematic ends, and in doing so make cinema a precision instrument, writing in the images of movement and sound.